I used to believe in food as a source of communal bliss. I grew up in a family that often spent dinner discussing what we were going to have for lunch the next day, so I assumed everyone bonded around food. After all, Holy Communion and Passover Seder--the cornerstone celebrations of Western faith--are ritualized meals. Thus, I never questioned that by breaking bread together, people by definition made peace with each other.
Until I met The Fusspot.
We studied linguistics together in graduate school. He was as friendly and energetic as a puppy, and gifted with a goofy laugh, a talent for really bad puns and a vast knowledge of "Brady Bunch" trivia. So when I was invited to spend the summer in Mexico researching indigenous languages and found out he also was going, I jumped at the chance. He spoke Spanish fluently (which I didn't) and had traveled extensively throughout Mexico (which I hadn't), so I was happy to have both his translation services and his company.
But when the topic turned to the food we'd be eating, things got strange. I was hoping our meals would be authentic Mexican, with freshly ground dried chiles and spices, warm tortillas and super-ripe tropical fruits. He had other ideas.
"I hope it's nothing too weird," he said slowly. "I'm kind of a picky eater."
That was a minor strike against him. I'm used to people who aren't as relentlessly omnivorous as me--my grandparents hail from a region of China whose inhabitants are known for eating everything but the chairs they're sitting on. I learned early that most other people didn't consider swallows' nests or sharks' fins acceptable dinner fare. (We did, my older relatives assured me, because we are more culturally advanced than everyone else.) Besides, traveling with a conservative eater in Mexico couldn't be that hard.
On our flight to Mexico, The Fusspot announced that he had ordered kosher meals, not for religious reasons, but so that he wouldn't get anything "yucky." He was dismayed to find that his kosher breakfast featured a generous portion of lox. He viewed all fish as slimy, smelly and disgusting. So I had a surprisingly pleasant bagel-and-lox breakfast while he chomped away happily at my stale muffin and canned fruit cup.
Things only got worse for him once we arrived in Mexico. Our project leader was widely known as a difficult character with a bad temper, but he had excellent taste in food. He insisted that all the meals prepared for us be Mexican, and he encouraged the cooks to show off their local specialties. They did not disappoint. I soon got used to 7 a.m. breakfasts of enchiladas with homemade black mole, black beans and rice, fruit and freshly baked pan dulce (pieces of which I always carried off in a napkin for a midmorning snack). Lunches were multi-course extravaganzas washed down with just-blended watermelon or papaya juice. Dinners were pretty much interchangeable with breakfasts. The type of field research we did burned a lot of calories, and meals were, to me, the highlight of our increasingly tedious 10-hour workdays.
All of this made The Fusspot a very unhappy camper. With the look of a USDA inspector, he would sullenly unfold and dissect his enchiladas and tamales. "What's this?" he'd whine loudly to our servers, holding up a minuscule morsel of meat or vegetable on his fork. "Is this cilantro? I don't eat cilantro."
The list of things that The Fusspot didn't eat turned out to be nearly endless: seafood, pork, any fowl except chicken, most vegetables, things with sauce on them, coffee, alcohol and any cheese that smelled or didn't form strings when melted. He had no medical or ethical problems with any of these--they were just "gross."
This would have been funny if he had kept it to himself--after all, there were always tortillas and a bowl of rice on the table, so he wouldn't have starved. But because The Fusspot spoke better Spanish than anyone else on the project, he got friendly with the kitchen staff and began to exert his influence on our menus.
One morning while our project leader was away, we came to breakfast and were greeted with individual-sized boxes of cornflakes. The Fusspot was delighted. A few days later, there were bland, pasty pancakes with imitation maple syrup. He gobbled them down joyfully, thanking the cooks for finally preparing food he could eat.
The kitchen staff reverted to its usual savory fare after our project leader returned. The Fusspot skipped lunch one day, preferring to dine on a mass-produced Mexican-made Twinkie clone purchased in town. He got a raging case of food poisoning from it and that seemed to me, at the time, to be proof of the existence of a just and all-knowing God.
Still, I wanted to stay friends with him. He was smart, funny and generous, and I really owed him for all his translation help. Our conversations centered on Mexican culture, bad '80s rock music, gossip about the project and mutual friends back home--but never about food. Until one day when, for whatever reason, he became quite agitated at the traumatic memory of being forced to eat in a Chinese restaurant. My reassurances that most Chinese restaurants have at least a few menu items suitable for (extremely wussy) Western tastes somehow incensed him further.
"I can't ever imagine eating that stuff. As far as I'm concerned, it's like eating dog poop!"
At that moment I realized we could never be real friends. To be fair, we were both on edge after several consecutive 60-hour workweeks, and The Fusspot didn't know that I had professional cooks on both sides of my family, going back several generations on one side. But I felt as if I'd been slapped.
Food, I realized, is not a unifier but a divider. Memorable meals are peaceable not because they bring people together, but because they sort them into compatible groups. Communion and Passover are celebrations of membership, not universal inclusion. Chili cook-offs, ethnic food fairs and church potlucks are community expressions of shared values and tastes--and part of their appeal is the absence of those who don't share these tastes and values.
The only foods meant to be suitable for everyone--dorm fare and chain restaurant meals eaten on the road--studiously attempt, like the worst popular media, to offend no one, and end up satisfying only those too desperate or undiscerning to care.
Knowing The Fusspot also made me realize that I am a food snob. If tastes in food define who we are, like politics and work, maybe I should be as tolerant of the dietary preferences of others as I am of their political and religious beliefs. If I can be cordial with communists, creationists and functional grammarians, can't I survive dinner with a grown man who screams every time two different foods on his plate touch each other?
Of course. But not tonight. That would be just too yucky.